Summer is more or less here, and with vaccinations moving fast across Europe things are finally starting to open up again, so it looks like we all may get a season to enjoy. And while it’s the inside activities like going to a restaurant or show that’ll be the big novelty, the good weather means most will be spending their time in the fresh air – whether in street cafés or town parks, gardens or the great outdoors. It’s this last option where Slovenia really excels, with varied topography and landscapes offering a wealth of activities and scenes to enjoy all within close proximity, making it the ideal location for an active vacation.
Which is the perfect introduction to Steve Hartley and his work at Explorer Camps. The Australian native came to Slovenia well over a decade ago and worked in the field of education before moving on to the world of summer camps with offerings for four different age groups – 6-9, 10-12, 13-14, and 15-17 years old – that have attracted children from around 40 different countries. At the camps children enjoy real, 3D adventures outdoors, with the full surround sound and profound sensory stimulation that only nature can provide. A real escape, at least for a few days, from the deadening distractions and look-at-me pings of technology and screens, with a focus on building real-life skills, such as collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and communication, through a fun and engaging outdoor summer programs that are run by native English-speaking staff.
As the world gets ready to go out again, we got in touch with Steve and asked him a few questions…
Can you describe Explorer Camps in three words?
Only three words? Wow. OK – Love. Life. Nature.
Love is at the heart of everything do at camps. We honestly love and believe in what we’re doing on camp and that transfers to our campers which helps them develop into more compassionate young adults.
Life is what we’re trying to prepare our campers for. A real-life away from technology and learning skills not commonly taught at school.
Nature is our classroom. Our international campers have real-life lessons on a raft or SUP or on a hike surrounded by the great outdoors.
How are the skills you teach at summer camp different to what’s taught at school?
Schools teach knowledge, but life requires wisdom. In the rush to grade students, education consistently overlooks skills such as independence, critical thinking, creativity, team work, communication, self-confidence, determination. So, there’s this void between what school teaches and what young adults need to start work.
Our Life Skills Program aims to cover that gap. As a result, our parents feel more comfortable knowing their child will return from camp happier, more independent, organised, and better prepared for life. We supplement what school isn’t able to offer.
With a 5 / 5 from 60 Google Reviews it seems that the Explorer community agrees with you about summer camp being the place to learn real-life skills.
You’ve done your homework!
It’s always nice receiving positive feedback from parents so our Google Reviews certainly leaves all of us with an amazing feeling. Considering over 70% of our families come back every year, it certainly does indicate that our camps are doing something right.
There’s a process to bringing this program to life.
The main part is training and creating a particular type of attitude. Our experienced mentors are motivated to actively find ‘teachable moments’ where they guide campers to reach a better understanding of life, themselves and those around them. The old “Give a person a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a person to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” is exactly how we see it. We prefer to teach our campers how to fish.
You teach campers to fish. Literally and figuratively! The outdoors plays such an important part of your camps. Why is that?
How much has the average child spent in nature in the past year or so?
Well, according to research, children should spend a minimum of 180 mins per day in nature however in the last few years they’d be lucky to get 1/3 of that. It’s not ideal, but at the same time it’s challenging for children and parents alike to get that time with all of the restrictions that have been in place.
Our vision has always been to help our international parents help their children. Being surrounded by nature, and having very little mass tourism to compete with makes it even easier to do. An average day will see our campers spend a minimum of 8 hours in the outdoors participating in activities such as rafting, hiking, SUPing, biking, paintball, a high ropes course etc.
We believe that the benefits of children being away from their screens and in nature is immeasurable. In these times our children are in desperate need of a stimulating outdoor environment minus technology. Which is what we provide at Explorer Camps.
Clearly your Explorer family feels this ‘love’ you talk about. But how do your first-time parents experience it without having ever gone to a camp?
We love having honest heart-felt discussions with our families. More often than not I have a personal video meeting with first time parents just to hear their own concerns and listen to their expectations. And from there it grows.
This love starts with me, and filters down throughout all of our team and can easily be seen in many of our approaches.
Parents can clearly see love in your approaches. Can you give us an example?
Camper mental health. It’s an unheard of topic not only in Slovenia but in Europe. However, it’s something we take very seriously because we honestly care about all of the children that step onto our camp grounds and see it as our responsibility to ensure they step out of the grounds better, happier and healthier young adults.
What does mental health mean for the children at Explorer Camps?
These unprecedented times have brought unprecedented conditions. Many people are calling it a ‘collective trauma’ in that each one of us have lost something. Whether that be a loved one. Or an important life moment such as a wedding, or graduation, or a birthday. Or income. Or belongings. Everyone has lost something. Children especially.
The reality is that our kids are suffering, and even though this may well be done in silence, they’re still suffering.
On camp we do our best to understand mental health. We’re aware of it, acknowledge it and train for it. We do our best to support all of our campers, their families and each other. We do so by building a warm, caring and positive environment where our campers feel a sense of belonging and trust. All away from electronic devices.
Being a technology-free camp, this helps in dealing with mental health issues?
Well, there have been studies showing screen time amongst teenagers is over 185% more when compared to pre COVID times. And it’s only going to get worse. We want to get away from this dependence on electronic devices, even if it’s just for a week.
Explorer Camps has always been 100% technology-free and this will never change. Face-to-face communication is paramount when it comes to our camp community as we see it as a vital tool to battling mental health issues. And, believe it or not but … the campers actually enjoy it.
Technology addiction is just the tip of the iceberg though, but it plays its part. The key is developing a truly positive atmosphere on camp where our children not only feel a sense of belonging but also can simply just be themselves.
What part do your counsellors play in creating this healthy environment?
“A company is only as good as its employees” definitely rings true at Explorer Camps.
We honestly believe our counsellors are second to none in this region and the part they play in building and maintaining a health camp environment is massive. They’re truly exceptional, and are the key reason why over 70% of our campers come back every year which always comes back to the key point of camp. We love what we do and our attitude shows this.
That being said, continual improvement drives the success of Explorer Camps every year. Our training is paramount, so we take it very seriously. This year our staff have access to an online library with video lessons, quizzes, and readings all created to help them improve as professionals and thus provide a better environment for our Explorer families.
The most important question to ask these days – are you going ahead with camps this summer?
Putting it into simple terms. YES! Most programs in July are full, and August is quickly filling up. We can’t wait.
Where does this confidence about running in 2021 come from?
I guess we look back at closing in 2020 and the reasons why we made that choice then.
At that point no camps around the world had truly experienced a Covid summer. And even though there was a lot of very well researched protocols for successfully running summer camps during the pandemic we didn’t believe Explorer Camps, the hotel nor society were prepared enough for dealing with Covid. So, we made that heart breaking choice to cancel camps with our Explorer families’ health and safety in mind.
However, we learnt a lot from that experience and ensured coming into the 2021 season that our camps are ready under nearly all circumstances. The hotel is better prepared. We’ve already trained our staff in our protocols for camps. Society is in a better place with all of the vaccinations etc.
All of this together gives us this confidence to push forward knowing that we’re in a much better position to ensure our Explorer families stay covid free.
How are you ensuring your children remain safe and healthy this summer?
The key, based on research and practical experience, is to have a multilayered approach to dealing with the virus. We can’t rely on only one method, but put into place a number of overlapping strategies to ensure maximum protection. Some of the main points are:
- Small groups (10-14 campers) that stay in the same group throughout whole camp.
- Opening day and daily health screenings.
- Mask wearing ONLY indoors.
- Focus on handwashing and disinfecting.
- Social distancing within reason.
- Campers coming healthy.
- Increased ventilation of rooms.
- Maximising time in the outdoors.
- Staff training on these measures.
Will the amazing camp experience be affected by this at all?
The reality is actually quite exciting. The magic and power that Explorer Camps is renowned for building will be stronger than ever and go beyond anything we’ve ever created!
In fact, these protocols really don’t impact the structure of the camps other than simply adding a little more focus to hygiene. All of the activities are running as usual whether that be rafting or stand-up paddling or paintball or ziplining. Everything is the same but done only within the smaller groups.
We’ve spent the last two years dreaming, planning, researching and looking for ways to elevate the camp experience even more. We’re honestly so excited about what’s waiting for all of our families in July and August and reconnecting them all with nature!
Lastly. Are you looking forward to the summer?
You can’t tell? YES! Can’t wait to have our campers back on camp having fun, learning, growing, and back to living life! We all love summer camps here in Europe. Can’t wait!
For those interested, make sure you check out our website but remember … July is pretty much full and August only has a few spots left.